Window Into Another World

Permission needed?

This photo was taken for the Digital Photography School challenge “Windows” as part of my Photo Challenge Year for 2011. I’ve taken a similar shot to this before and I’ve actually been waiting all week for a cloudy afternoon to take this photo. Finally I got some cloud cover this afternoon and was able to start taking the shot I wanted but I also ended up getting a bit more than I bargained for.

The Confrontation

Here’s the situation. The building you see above is a tower block that is part of Toowong Village shopping centre here in Brisbane. A nice great big sheet of sheet glass windows with a blue tinge that reflect wonderfully, making for some great potential photographs.

I was standing off to the side of a footpath area, tripod set up taking shots facing directly up into the sky. I managed to take a grand total of three photos (the one above being the last) before being approached by a security guard who informed me I would need to stop and that I would need to ask building management if I could take any more. Now before anyone starts attacking the guard I believe he did everything by the book:

  • He was firm but polite – At no point did he raise his voice nor use any threatening terms or demeanor.
  • He repeated a single fact – He did  not attempt to enter any arguments, simply repeatedly stated that if I wished to continue I would need to talk to management.
  • He did not ask me to delete the already taken photos – At no point did he ask to even see the photos already taken, let alone delete them. It was made clear that the issue was only in “if I wished to continue

Because I didn’t wish to cause a confrontation I acquiesced to his request, after all this is my local shopping centre and the last thing I need to do is causing myself trouble in it.

This is the first time I’ve had a run in of this kind, even in famously acerbic New York I never once was confronted over taking photos of the outside of a commercial building.

The Question

Here’s where it gets interesting. I honestly do believe the security guard was just doing his job and informing me of the policy he was told about by Toowong Village management. So the question would seem to be is this policy actually legal in Australia?

Initially I assumed I was standing on public ground taking a photo of private property which, as far as I know, is perfectly legal. However it appears that Toowong Village private property encompasses the entire block up to and including the walkway I was taking the photo from. Does the fact it’s outside and used as a public thoroughfare make it a de facto public ground? Legally speaking the answer seems to be “probably not”.

Now I knew that photo taking was technically prohibited inside the centre, signs on the door clearly indicate this, but there are no signs outside of the complex, nor does the Toowong Village website seem to have any such listed policy. This does not mean one doesn’t exist but it seems to make it quite hard to comply with a policy you can’t read before hand. UPDATED – See below.

Given I see people with normal cameras and camera phones each and every day taking photos of the tower, why exactly was I singled out? I assume it was because I was using a tripod and DSLR and thus was assumed to be taking photos for commercial purposes (which I wasn’t) and therefore the security guard was dispatched to have a word with me (he came directly from the management building door).

Australian Photography Rights

Numerous people responded to me on twitter asking if I had “waved a photographers right card” at the security guard. The answer to this is no for one simple reason – to the best of my knowledge there is no single unified photographers rights card for Australia. I have seen ones for the USA and the UK but they are both well grounded in those countries actual laws. So far I have not found a simple source of absolute rules for Australia.

I have seen, and have been pointed to, a number of resources regarding photographers rights in Australia. The most common ones I have listed here:

NSW Photo Rights – Australian Street Photography Legal Issues – by far the best resource, written by ex-lawyer with a good deal of experience

Street Photographer’s Rights (Australia Only)

Photographers Rights, General Privacy, and Copyright in Australia

All of these are great general resources but you’ll notice they all carry the same disclaimer – they aren’t lawyers and these shouldn’t be used in place of actual legal advice. You’ll also notice there appears to be hundreds of exceptions based around state, type of building and in some cases quite specific venues such as the Sydney Harbour Foreshore. In short photographers rights in Australia appears to be a minefield of potential insanity for which no single nice set of rules can be obtained. This is frustrating but also somewhat of an eye opener.

Comments Wanted

So that was my interesting little venture into the world of legal rights and photography in modern Australia for the day. I’d love to hear your stories on any similar incidents, whether I’m wrong and there is a single resource for Australian photographers rights somewhere or just if you think I did the right thing or not. Please add comments below!

Update – No Signs Restricting Photography – 29 Jan 2011

During a grocery shopping trip to Toowong Village we decided to double-check the doors to see if my memory of no photography permitted was correct. To my surprise it wasn’t. The doors listed restrictions for dress codes, smoking, skateboards and bicycles but no mention of photography. This brings up further questions over exactly why I was asked to stop photographing the outside of the building when there appears to not even be limitations on photography inside. Next step is to try to contact Toowong Village management and ask for clarification regarding this issue.

Update – Response From Toowong Village Management – 2 February 2011

After a few days waiting I have received a polite and detailed response from the group that manages Toowong Village. The response wasn’t quite what I expected but before I comment any further, here it is:

Hello Daniel

Thank you for your email received in our office on Monday 31 January. We confirm that our security Guard did follow the correct procedure in this instance by referring you to our Centre Management office.

In response to your queries, we confirm that Toowong Village and Tower is private property. We understand that the area where you had set up your equipment was positioned external to the centre however was still located on the centre’s property. Centre management and the Centre’s owners have a duty of care to provide a safe environment for all patrons and staff who attend the centre. As such, any person or entity erecting or using equipment or displays on the centre’s property are required to meet certain conditions. These conditions include but are not limited to ensuring that the display / equipment is safe, the entity has appropriate public liability insurance cover in place and does not conflict with any other centre conditions that may apply to the specific type of display / equipment being used. This centre policy applies to all entities regardless of whether they are commercial operations, charities or individuals.

Based on the information that you detailed in your email and on your web site, in principle, Centre management would not have had any issue with you taking photographs of the external facade of the property. Conditions would have been imposed on your proposed activity such as providing a barrier around your work area to ensure patrons did not accidentally trip over your equipment and the provision of appropriate public liability insurance cover for the period that you were operating on the premises.

In reference to other comments made on your website, many commercial buildings do have strict policies in relation to activities that may put the property at potential risk. These risks are many and varied however do include such things as not permitting internal photography as those images could potentially be used to document security systems both within the centre as well as individual stores.

In summary, Centre Management is open to any approaches in relation to using the centre for activities outside of normal shopping or business purposes. Consideration will always be given to any potential risks involved in conducting the activity and should those risks be managed and all other conditions complied with, it would be highly unusual for permission not to be granted for the activity by Centre Management.

I trust that this answers your queries.”

To summarise:

  • As I had assumed the security guard had indeed done things by the book
  • Confirmed that I was indeed on their property at the time and therefore subject to their rules (no argument here)
  • The issue seems to have been more about the tripod than the photography itself. I’ll go into more detail on this below
  • The don’t exactly specify their policy on internal photography – I’ve asked for clarification
  • Overall they have no issue with the photography, they would just like permission asked for first (fair enough)

The problem itself seems to really be centered around my use of a tripod and the potential hazard it could create. I had thought of this and positioned myself well off the walk way in a corner area that no one could easily just wander through and cause themselves harm but I can see their point. You can see they very specifically talk about “appropriate public liability insurance cover” whilst shooting on their premise. Unfortunately it seems that personal responsibility is sometimes seen as an optional extra by some people and their first reaction to having an accident on a commercial premises is to sue them for some insane value of money, regardless if they were actually at fault or not. As a result places like Toowong Village need to make sure they are covered legally in the event they have a run in with this sort of person and this means enforcing the policy on everyone as they clearly state.

All in all the response is measured and reasonably detailed. Some more detail on their policy on internal photography sans tripods or other equipment would be nice and I’ve asked for it. It’s nice to see a commercial entity replying to this kind of inquiry without resorting to threats or other allegations, which I must admit I was expecting as a possible reply.

So what are your views? Do you disagree with their stance? Do you disagree with my stance? I am interested to see other people’s views of this response.

Update – Toowong Village Management Provides Further Clarification – 3 February 2011

I asked for further clarification on their policy specifically relating to photography and they have indeed replied:

“Hi Daniel,

Your point is valid in that several images of Toowong Village, both internal and external, are freely available both online and through other sources such as historical records.
Some of these images have been obtained with approval from Management while I’m sure others exist where they have been obtained without approval. It is unrealistic for management to even attempt to control or restrict information/ images that are currently available and so we do not do so unless it is of a litigious nature.

In relation to a company policy for internal photography within the centre we offer the following comment. Given that the nature of requests received by people to take internal photographs of the centre is so varied we believe that each request needs to be assessed on its individual merits. In saying this, in conducting this assessment, our number one priority is to ensure the safety of all involved and to minimise potential risk for all stake holders. These stakeholders include:

  • The person taking the photograph – who is at risk of legal action in the event that a person suffers loss as a result of the photographers method of operation eg. tripping over their equipment.
  • Patrons who are photographed but may not wish to be, and prior permission is not obtained by the photographer.
  • Retailers who do not wish for their stores to be photographed due to various issues but mainly due to the potential of people using the photos to assess their security systems. This information can then be used to plan shop lifting or other illegal activities.
  • The centre owners – who are jointly at risk (as it occurs on their property) of legal action in the event that the photographer is found negligent of a proper method of operation and Management has not taken action to remedy or prevent this potential risk to patrons.

As you can see there are many variables to consider when assessing a request for photos to be taken inside the centre. Permission is granted in those cases where Management considers that the risks involved in conducting this activity are appropriately managed.

Our policy is not displayed on our entrances based on the fact that we receive very few requests for photos to be taken in the centre. Nor do we experience many people within the centre taking photos without permission. Should a person be discovered taking photographs on the centre’s property they are directed to Centre Management at which time their request is assessed.

I trust that this addresses the points that you have raised.”

This seems to resolve most of the questions I had and in general seems sane. Comments?

21 thoughts on “Window Into Another World

  1. Rights aside – because I clearly don’t have a leg to stand on with respect to AU law – I don’t understand what possible issue could arise by taking photos of the outside of a building. I had a similar situation where I was photographing an Art Deco building in downtown Philadelphia from across the street and a security officer came over to put the kai-bash on that. As it turns out, the building was a federal building. Under some interpretations of US Law, especially since 2001, it could be construed that I am not allowed to photograph federal buildings (For the record, I don’t believe that interpretation, but I don’t put up fights with federal officers either). I was required to delete the photos in front of him and carry on.

    But really…what could possibly be the harm in photographing the outside of any building? I could just as easily get any such information from publicly available aerial or satellite photos. For that matter, a good portion of it shows up on Google Street Views or even Bing’s Birds Eye view. Even so, knowing what it looks like outside isn’t going to give me any advantage if I were to plan something shady.

    And don’t get me started on the US FAA. Paranoia is all it comes down to.

    • I honestly don’t understand it either – all seems to be part of classic “security theater” where some people in positions of power seem to feel like the should do something regardless of how inane it is.

      In the case of photography federal US buildings it seems this is been clarified in the last few days with the release of this document:

      http://www.scribd.com/doc/47627164/FPS-Information-Bulletin

      This seems to agree with your view of the laws as well as explicitly stating – “officers should not seize the camera or its contents, and must be cautious not to give such ‘orders’ to a photographer to erase the contents of a camera, as this constitutes a seizure or detention.”

      Had the security guard tried to force me to delete the images I had already taken I would have not been as willing to do what he wanted. I might try and ask the shopping centre for a copy of their policy and see what their argument actually is (or indeed if it actually exists).

  2. Rights aside – because I clearly don’t have a leg to stand on with respect to AU law – I don’t understand what possible issue could arise by taking photos of the outside of a building. I had a similar situation where I was photographing an Art Deco building in downtown Philadelphia from across the street and a security officer came over to put the kai-bash on that. As it turns out, the building was a federal building. Under some interpretations of US Law, especially since 2001, it could be construed that I am not allowed to photograph federal buildings (For the record, I don’t believe that interpretation, but I don’t put up fights with federal officers either). I was required to delete the photos in front of him and carry on.

    But really…what could possibly be the harm in photographing the outside of any building? I could just as easily get any such information from publicly available aerial or satellite photos. For that matter, a good portion of it shows up on Google Street Views or even Bing’s Birds Eye view. Even so, knowing what it looks like outside isn’t going to give me any advantage if I were to plan something shady.

    And don’t get me started on the US FAA. Paranoia is all it comes down to.

    • I honestly don’t understand it either – all seems to be part of classic “security theater” where some people in positions of power seem to feel like the should do something regardless of how inane it is.

      In the case of photography federal US buildings it seems this is been clarified in the last few days with the release of this document:

      http://www.scribd.com/doc/47627164/FPS-Information-Bulletin

      This seems to agree with your view of the laws as well as explicitly stating – “officers should not seize the camera or its contents, and must be cautious not to give such ‘orders’ to a photographer to erase the contents of a camera, as this constitutes a seizure or detention.”

      Had the security guard tried to force me to delete the images I had already taken I would have not been as willing to do what he wanted. I might try and ask the shopping centre for a copy of their policy and see what their argument actually is (or indeed if it actually exists).

  3. MR says:

    Why don’t you go in and talk to management? “I tried the other day an was told to speak to you.” It would be interesting to see their response, especially if there is no policy.

    • Unfortunately their open hours for the management office conflict with my own work hours. I have found an email address for them and will be politely requesting clarification on what the policy is exactly.

  4. MR says:

    Why don’t you go in and talk to management? “I tried the other day an was told to speak to you.” It would be interesting to see their response, especially if there is no policy.

    • Unfortunately their open hours for the management office conflict with my own work hours. I have found an email address for them and will be politely requesting clarification on what the policy is exactly.

  5. I work for QR and people wanting to photograph our ‘stuff’ is pretty common.

    In our orientation we are expressly told (perhaps similarly to your security guard) that if we see anyone photographing our ‘stuff’ especially with specialist equipment then we are to approach them and question their intent and potentially ‘move them on’ / escort them to a safer area if need be.

    The key thing in our policy that might explain Toowong Villiages reaction is this:

    “Commonwealth departments have advised Queensland Rail that terrorist attack planners often engage in pre-attack reconnaissance. This may include taking pictures of likely targets and consequently you should be aware of the perception you may create. For this reason it is important that you comply with the above request to make yourself known to Queensland Rail staff.” (inside PDF document)

    We also do not have any signs up anywhere stating that you can or cant photograph things however we do have a clear policy / explanation on the website http://www.queenslandrail.com.au/AllStations/Pages/AccesstoQueenslandRailPremises.aspx about what is and isnt ok (which it sounds like Toowong Village doesnt have)..

    I suspect that many staff have just been told not to let people take photos and perhaps haven’t had the actual policy reasons explained. Whilst QR is very flexible and most staff have had the reasoning explained and thus can make intelligent judgment calls … perhaps many individuals such as the security personal at Toowong have just been given the black and white version by management for simplicity sake…

    • Most train operators in Australia have a pretty similar approach and most of it put in as part of the 2001 security theater aftermath, I disagree with their logic but I will abide by the rules and regulations. The QR one appears to be reasonably sane and well written.

      I don’t have a particular beef with Toowong Village – I was standing on their property taking photos of their building – something they have every right to prevent if they so desire. It would just be nice if I could get a clarification on what I can/can’t do in this area as to prevent any future issues.

      It will be interesting to see what they reply with (if they reply – I was as polite as possible in the email, I do not wish to upset them). If there is a black/white policy the enforcement of it appears to be a little lopsided at the moment – for example the Toowong Village wikipedia page has multiple external and internal photos of the building.

    • Iain says:

      Ah, yes, the “terrorist” argument. Of course, it’s utter bunk, aka security theatre – any competent terrorist *might* rely on photography, but they’re highly unlikely to do it overtly. Or indeed, do it themselves.

  6. I work for QR and people wanting to photograph our ‘stuff’ is pretty common.

    In our orientation we are expressly told (perhaps similarly to your security guard) that if we see anyone photographing our ‘stuff’ especially with specialist equipment then we are to approach them and question their intent and potentially ‘move them on’ / escort them to a safer area if need be.

    The key thing in our policy that might explain Toowong Villiages reaction is this:

    “Commonwealth departments have advised Queensland Rail that terrorist attack planners often engage in pre-attack reconnaissance. This may include taking pictures of likely targets and consequently you should be aware of the perception you may create. For this reason it is important that you comply with the above request to make yourself known to Queensland Rail staff.” (inside PDF document)

    We also do not have any signs up anywhere stating that you can or cant photograph things however we do have a clear policy / explanation on the website http://www.queenslandrail.com.au/AllStations/Pages/AccesstoQueenslandRailPremises.aspx about what is and isnt ok (which it sounds like Toowong Village doesnt have)..

    I suspect that many staff have just been told not to let people take photos and perhaps haven’t had the actual policy reasons explained. Whilst QR is very flexible and most staff have had the reasoning explained and thus can make intelligent judgment calls … perhaps many individuals such as the security personal at Toowong have just been given the black and white version by management for simplicity sake…

    • Most train operators in Australia have a pretty similar approach and most of it put in as part of the 2001 security theater aftermath, I disagree with their logic but I will abide by the rules and regulations. The QR one appears to be reasonably sane and well written.

      I don’t have a particular beef with Toowong Village – I was standing on their property taking photos of their building – something they have every right to prevent if they so desire. It would just be nice if I could get a clarification on what I can/can’t do in this area as to prevent any future issues.

      It will be interesting to see what they reply with (if they reply – I was as polite as possible in the email, I do not wish to upset them). If there is a black/white policy the enforcement of it appears to be a little lopsided at the moment – for example the Toowong Village wikipedia page has multiple external and internal photos of the building.

    • Iain says:

      Ah, yes, the “terrorist” argument. Of course, it’s utter bunk, aka security theatre – any competent terrorist *might* rely on photography, but they’re highly unlikely to do it overtly. Or indeed, do it themselves.

  7. Iain says:

    I think they’re surprisingly reasonable (though I’m sure there’s more to it than simply tripod OH&S – such as preventing commercial photography.

  8. Iain says:

    I think they’re surprisingly reasonable (though I’m sure there’s more to it than simply tripod OH&S – such as preventing commercial photography.

  9. I can understand and appreciate their policy relative to the tripod. But it somewhat bothers me that they are addressing it as a “photography” issue when its clear to me that it’s a tripod issue (save for the small comment about photographing security, but that statement seemed like an example of what other companies might do and are entitled to do). That said, you should have been approached about the tripod…and if you continued shooting without, I suspect you wouldn’t have been in violation of their policy.

    • They provided some more clarification (post updated) – mostly it seems sane and seems to indicate a more case by case scenario rather than any hard policy with regards to photography.

  10. I can understand and appreciate their policy relative to the tripod. But it somewhat bothers me that they are addressing it as a “photography” issue when its clear to me that it’s a tripod issue (save for the small comment about photographing security, but that statement seemed like an example of what other companies might do and are entitled to do). That said, you should have been approached about the tripod…and if you continued shooting without, I suspect you wouldn’t have been in violation of their policy.

    • They provided some more clarification (post updated) – mostly it seems sane and seems to indicate a more case by case scenario rather than any hard policy with regards to photography.

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